Ms Amruta Talawadekar
Senior Research Associate, MHS
Bombay (now Mumbai) is known for its uniqueness, whether in terms of its cosmopolitan culture, diversity in architecture, or varying dialects. An interestingly peculiar thing that Bombay was known for was the fact that it had its own standard time. Prior to India’s independence in 1947, Bombay had three time zones. This may seem unusual, as most cities typically have a single national standard time zone. This article explores Bombay’s varying time zones and the nuances behind their existence.
Till the late 19th century, before the introduction of Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT), the world followed its own local time predominantly based on the position of the sun. After the introduction of GMT, the British established a standard time zone for the entire Indian subcontinent in 1905, known as Indian Standard Time (IST) which was 5 and a half hours ahead of GMT..
By the 20th century, Bombay was a major port city and commercial hub under the British East India Company. It was also the capital of the Bombay Presidency, which comprised the present-day states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and parts of Karnataka. The implementation of IST was particularly challenging in the Bombay Presidency due to its location between two distinct regions – the west coast and the near central regions of India. Different regions followed different time zones. The hinterland continued using the position of the sun to determine time while the ports juggled between the time zones. The Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an influential business group, lobbied the British authorities to set up a separate time zone for the city. London was a crucial trading hub of the Crown back in the United Kingdom during the 1900s and had frequent trade interactions with Bombay. London being four and a half hours behind IST created inconvenience for Bombay’s traders and businessmen.
To accommodate the different time systems in different regions within the Presidency, the Bombay Time Act of 1913 was passed, which allowed for a time difference of 30 minutes between Bombay and the central regions of India. Bombay Mean Time (BMT) was introduced in 1916 which aligned Bombay’s clock to London. Bombay was given the option to either follow IST (or Railway Time) or adopt the Bombay Mean Time (BMT). This created a situation where Bombay had three time zones – IST or Railway Time, BMT or Bombay Time and a third zone called the Port Signal Time. The Port Signal Time worked on a now obsolete mechanism called the time ball . A large wooden or metal ball would drop at a predetermined time to help international ships arriving at the city’s coast adjust their chronometers. BMT was set at 4 hours and 51 minutes ahead of GMT and the Port Signal Time was set at 5 hours ahead of GMT. BMT was followed majorly in Bombay City, up to Sion and Mahim. On the other hand, the railways, telegraphs, Suburban Bombay, and most other parts of colonial India, followed IST. Port Signal Time was followed by the naval ports and dockyards on the seafront.
In Bombay, the time zones also represented people’s political alignment and eventually became the city’s way of resisting colonial power. The population that accepted British supremacy followed the IST, while those who protested chose the BMT. Attempts to standardise the time zone led to massive protests. The public clocks run by the municipal corporation continued displaying Bombay Time despite the introduction of IST. The economic strata within the city refused to standardise the time zones of Bombay with Karachi (who by then was following IST) despite Karachi and Bombay lying within 5 degrees of longitude. They felt that Bombay had a higher status and could not be generalised with Karachi.
The existence of three time zones in Bombay was not without its challenges. The city’s port was one of the busiest in the world, handling a large volume of goods that were exported to and imported from various parts of the world. With people and goods constantly on the move, the presence of three different time zones in the city created confusion and chaos, making it difficult for traders and business people to keep track of time. This led to delays in the movement of goods and a loss of productivity, which hurt the city’s trade. The chaos disappointed businesses looking to set up operations in the city. Many of the factories began working round the clock to accommodate time zones making it difficult for workers to maintain a healthy work-life balance, further leading to burnout and other negative health effects. The confusion caused by multiple time zones heavily impacted commerce and trade, which were vital to Bombay’s economy. The clocks in the Municipal Corporation showed Bombay Time while Victoria Terminus which lay just opposite the corporation displayed Indian Standard Time . Invitations would include ‘BT’ or ‘ST’ placed on them. Anyone taking the railways would have to double-check the schedules and adjust their watches accordingly to avoid missing their train.
In today’s scenario where time is money, it’s indeed difficult to imagine that the people of Bombay once upon a time were under three different time zones. Imagine one is late for work and still not late. It’s both funny and confusing, isn’t it? Bombay’s time zones have been a subject of curiosity and interest for many years and were a reflection of India’s complex geography and political realities during the early 20th century. The city’s business community played a crucial role in lobbying for a separate time zone, while the struggle for independence and the subsequent boycott of British goods and services added light to the time zones. Today, Bombay has standardized it’s time to IST, but the legacy of its unique time zones is a part of Bombay’s urban vocabulary and continues to fascinate people around the world.
- Bombay, Government of. 1910. Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island Vol III. Bombay: Government of Bombay, pg 228.
- Masselos, J. 2017. Bombay Time/Standard Time. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 40(2), pg 282